China taught the world and China learned from it. Through the centuries China’s influence on its neighbors particularly Japan, Korea and Tibet was incalculable, and its contributions to world civilization ranged from mechanical clocks and fireworks to porcelain and poetry. In turn it owed much of its own richness and diversity in medieval times to fruitful connections with other cultures.
These connections came about through imperial conquest, trade and even through religion. The territory controlled by China expanded from the little Middle Kingdom in the Yellow River valley, which was the Chinese world to the feudal baron Szu-ma Niu in the Fifth Century B.C, to the vast domains reaching out northwest and south, which were controlled by the great Emperor Li Lung-chi at the height of T’ang power. Traders followed in the footsteps of the conquering soldiers and later reached out far beyond the Chinese world. Zealous pilgrims roamed through all of Asia in search of Buddhist shrines and brought back with them the riches of neighboring lands. And finally, more distant influences were brought by adventurous foreigners who came from as far as Persia and Byzantium to enjoy the splendors of medieval China.
Founder of a golden age, the Emperor T’ai Tsung overthrew the Sui Dynasty in 618 A.D., subjugated surrounding peoples and conquered large tracts of Central Asia, initiating the 300-year rule of the T’ang Dynasty.
How much of China’s earliest culture resulted from contact with other ancient civilizations is still a tantalizing question. A century or so ago it was believed that no significant element of Chinese culture-the religion, cosmology, writing system could have developed entirely within China itself. All the basic ideas must have come, it was thought, from Mesopotamia, or Egypt, or some other cradle of civilization better known to the West. There are few people today who accept this as the complete story, though it is difficult to filter any truly reliable information from the meagre and ambiguous data provided by ancient Chinese sources. One thing is clear, however-ideas and goods flowed both in and out of China from the earliest times.
It is known, for instance, that contacts between the ancient Hua men and other peoples in remote antiquity were motivated primarily by the need for items used in religious rituals. The oldest Chinese records show that among the most important of the goods brought in from other countries were pigments required for ceremonial purposes – for painting temples, altars, the bodies of celebrants and ritual objects of all kinds. Jade, the holy gemstone, had always come from some 1,500 miles away in Central Asia.
The earliest intimations of the existence of foreign trade reveal not only the religious motives of the traders but also the spiritual aura of their mission. The traveler had to prepare himself for encounters with the many spirits, good and bad, that lurked beyond the frontiers of the Middle Kingdom. There were baleful demons to be appeased and strange gods to be adored. Part of the role of guidebooks in Ancient China was to acquaint the far wanderer with the supernatural problems of his journey. Indeed, in the Bronze Age there could have been little to distinguish the worldly peregrinations of a slave trader’s trembling body from the cosmic explorations of a shaman’s shivering soul.
After the fall of the Chou Dynasty in the Third Century B.C. the Chinese world expanded rapidly. Under the Ch’in and Han Dynasties, foreign contacts multiplied and were better documented as China began to absorb old neighbors by force and thus encountered new ones.
To the north of the Middle Kingdom there was a confederacy of nomadic tribes called the Hsiung-nu, and protecting the frontier against these barbarians had always been important to the Hua men. At this time it became doubly important to contain the Hsiung-nu in order to establish control over the lucrative trade routes to the West. This was done both by war and by intrigue.
Chinese expansion in the northwest began with a diplomatic mission arranged by the powerful Han emperor, Liu Che. It came about because he and his advisers feared the power of the Hsiung-nu, who at that time had overcome another great nomadic tribe, the Yueh-chih, and made the skull of its king into a wine goblet. The defeated tribe had driven its flocks far into the west and Liu Che.
The emperor’s chief purpose was to weaken the Hsiung-nu, and he hoped to play on the desire of the defeated Yueh-chih to avenge the ignominious death of their king and thus to restore their national honor. The man Liu Che chose for an emissary was a courtier named Chang Chien. He was the right man for the job-a robust, big-hearted fellow who treated all men fairly, whatever their race, and who was quick to make friends in strange nations. He now ranks among the greatest of explorers and travelers, comparable only to men like Marco Polo and Magellan.
At first Chang Chien’s great mission seemed unlikely to succeed. He was captured by the Hsiung-nu on his way through the deadly salt deserts and grassy wastes into Central Asia, and spent many years among them. He took a native wife, who bore him children. But he never forgot his important errand. He escaped from the Hsiung-nu encampment and continued on his way west accompanied by a native guide. He is the first Chinese known to have visited the Iranian nations of Ferghana, Samarkand and Bactria. Eventually he found the Hsiung-nu enemies, but they had by then established a new and fertile base on the northwest frontier of India and were content to remain aloof from Far Eastern intrigue.
The great Han empire was literally founded in Chang Chiens footsteps. When the explorer-diplomat returned and reported on the riches he had seen, the Han armies marched. They took control of the route west and extended the confines of the empire as far as Sogdiana.
A farewell scene-set against a background of Mongol tents, saddled horses and camels-illustrates a famous Chinese story. lt shows Wen-chi, a captive Chinese wife ransomed after 12 years in the north, taking leave of her Mongol husband. (He is the heavy, dark-robed figure standing with her at the right, his sleeves raised to his face to hide his grief.) During China’s era of expansion north-westward, many women like Wen-chi were married off to-or carried off by-such northern chieftains.
Chang Chiens discoveries also influenced life at home. The horses of the new Chinese cavalry grazed on the fields of alfalfa grown from the seeds he brought back; the aristocracy ate the grapes that his explorations brought to their tables for the first time. In later times, so great was his fame as an introducer of new plants that almost any novelty introduced into the gardens and orchards of the Chinese was confidently attributed to the diligence of Chang Chien.
The route to the West that had been pioneered by Chang Chien was reopened in medieval times. The workshops of the T’ang palace required alum from Qoco in Central Asia for glazing fine paper, and jade from Khotan for making ornaments and sacred objects. Court goldsmiths could not solder the metals they worked with without ammonium chloride from the volcanic fumaroles in Central Asia or the borax from the dry desert lakes in Tibet.
To keep these routes open the Chinese had to hold the frontier against the ever-threatening barbarians. This was often accomplished without the necessity of going to war by appeasing the pastoral nomads with gifts of Chinese silk, wine and women. Indeed the diplomatic marriage was to become a very important element of Chinese policy. A fur-hatted northern chieftain was almost certain to be delighted by the proffering of an aristocratic Chinese girl as a wife, although the pale-skinned, fastidious young lady involved in the transaction might not be so happy with her new life, which had to be spent in a felt tent that stank with boiled mutton and fermented milk. An old poem reflects the feelings of such a delicate exile:
My household married me off-Oh! under another sky,
Gave me in custody, in a strange land-Oh! to the king of the Wu-sun.
A vaulted hut for a house-Oh! with felt for wall,
I use flesh for food-Oh! kumiss for liqueur.
Thoughts of my own soil are always with me-Oh! wounded deep in my heart
I could wish to be a yellow swan-Oh! to return to my old home-
At the same time as the Chinese began to expand vigorously to the northwest, they also turned in the direction in which lay their true destiny-the south. The armies of Ch’in and Han extended the soul them border of their land beyond the Yangtze River into country barely conceived of by men of the Bronze Age. They pushed through the great virgin forests of the monsoon lands, beyond the Tropic of Cancer, to the thunderous coast of the South China Sea. Then their emperor declared that these lands, populated by head-hunters and crocodiles, were also Chinese lands.
The First Emperor of Ch’in created three huge provinces, with hazy boundaries, on the South Sea coast and named them “South Sea,” “Cinnamon Forest” and “Elephant.” The central government was unable to retain its hold over this vast and distant tropical wilderness, however, and it was soon taken over by a Chinese war lord Chao T’o, who declared himself King of Nam-Viet, extended his kingdom into the area that was to become North Vietnam and ruled it all from a base near modern Canton. He eventually bequeathed this strange realm to the Han emperors, but they had little better success than their predecessors in holding onto the south-coastal possessions.
A network of trade routes by land and sea linked China to the outer world during T’ang times. Over roads like the Silk Route, which skirted mountains and deserts, China exported her famous silk and imported luxury goods. Among these imports, many of them previously unknown to the Chinese, were almonds from Kucha, peach trees from Persia and glassware from Syria.
In the First Century A.D., however, a septua-genarian war lord, Ma Yuan, “Wave Tamer,” reclaimed the territory and finally made the Hua men the true masters of the tropical coast. Ma Yuan established his name forever in local folklore as a great admiral and general who erected two bronze pillars at the new southern limits of the civilized world, beyond which were only demons, ghosts and subhuman savages. But the world beyond the pillars was also the source of magic night-shining pearls, drugs of unheard of potency and incenses so rich that they could draw the gods down to the altars of China.
Immediately beyond the bronze pillars lay the long, narrow coastal nation of Champa and here, finally, was the limit of Hua expansion into the tropics. In post-Han times Champa was a great independent kingdom, ruled by a king clad in cotton, adorned with necklaces of gold and pearls and wearing flowers in his hair. He was protected by guards in rattan armor, who rode elephants into battle. Cham culture, like most cultures of South-east Asia, had been strongly modified by Indian institutions, including the religions of Shiva, Vishnu and the Buddha. The Chinese pushed continually at the borderland of the “malignant and tyrannical” Chams, while the Chams raided the Chinese settlements when they could.
Beyond Champa were the rich countries of the Gulf of Siam, the Java Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The conquests of Ma Yuan opened up sea routes to these enchanting emporia-but the glorious opportunities offered here to the Hua landlubbers could be only partially exploited. The dark waters of the South China Sea were a much greater barrier to the Chinese than the shifting sands of the Gobi Desert. Even as late as T’ang times, they continued to rely chiefly on foreign ships to transport them and their wares to the Indianized sea-ports of the fabulous south. Persian and Singhalese argosies, some 200 feet long and carrying more than 600 men, sailed from Canton on the winter monsoon that blew out of the north. They carried porcelain, musk and slaves along the coast of Champa, leaving rare gems, drugs and fine hardwoods for the Chinese aristocracy behind.
The few Chinese traders who braved these remote waters in foreign ships became accustomed to the black and malicious (as they thought) faces of the Indonesians. They brought back tales of the wild Nicobar where their vessels stopped for coconuts and ambergris on the way to Ceylon, the Island of Rubies; and they regaled listeners with accounts of depredations by pirates encountered on the way to the Indian coast and its rich stocks of saffron, sandalwood and ivory.
By medieval times, the ships from the Indian Ocean were pouring exotic items into Chinese cities. From Annam, now a part of both Vietnams, came silver to make ewers and vases; exotic dyes such as one called “dragon’s blood,” came from Indonesia; gambodge came from the resin of an Indochinese forest tree. Fine tropical hardwoods were in great demand: dark sanderswood to make lutes and cabinetry; red-brown rosewood for tables and couches; yellow Indian sandalwood for images, reliquaries and jewel boxes; ebony for the zithers of gentlemen. From the South Seas came all sorts of aromatic goods such as aloeswood, patchouli and cloves. The fortunate men of T’ang lived in a sparkling scented world, almost unparalleled in other places and times.
The treasure of trade goods was not the only lure to attract Chinese interest in distant lands. The most dedicated of the Chinese who took ship for the Indian Ocean were pious Buddhist pilgrims, many of them men of great attainments and universal culture. They went to the lands washed by the southern seas and there they found flourishing centers of Buddhism and other Indian religions.
The effects of the devoted energy and sufferings of migrant monks on Chinese civilization were immense. Driven by the prospect of religious merit to be gained by pilgrimages to the holy lands of India, and by the hope of obtaining the newest and purest products of religious scholarship in the form of reliable texts and the holiest relics, they plodded though the deserts of Central Asia, hacked their way through the jungles of Burma and risked the many dangers of the tropical seas. Their dedication was incredible. But they achieved great successes. The Buddhist monk I-ching left Canton in 671 to visit the sanctuaries and shrines of Indonesia and India. He returned in 695, after visiting 30 countries, with 400 collections of scriptures, the texts of 500,000 anthems and 300 holy relics.
The books of Buddhist South Asia had a tremendous influence on Chinese philosophy, science and ethics; they changed musical tastes; and the religious art of China was modified beyond recognition as a result of the study of the sacred paintings and statues of India and Greater Iran. The wandering monks also brought back Indian medical books, some of which were translated into Chinese; unfortunately, such translated works as “Brahman Medicinal Recipes” in five scrolls, and “Important Prescriptions Collected by Famous Physicians of the Western Regions” in four scrolls are now known only by title. More than books was brought back to China by devoted travelers. Their detailed accounts provided the first reliable information about distant countries whose terrain and customs had been known to the Chinese in only the sketchiest way. Probably the best of these pilgrim explorers was Hsuan-tsang, who took the dangerous land route through Central Asia to India in the Seventh Century A.D. In later centuries he was immortalized as a saint and his journey popularized in fables and vernacular literature, but for the historian his great contribution was a wonderfully precise and colorful account of the many countries he traversed.
To take one example from among many, he describes Samarkand, today a provincial capital of the Uzbek region in Soviet Turkestan, but then a great imperial city, surrounded by a wall, about seven miles in circumference, which governed a powerful state. This was a rich land, he tells us, where the treasures of distant countries accumulated full of powerful horses and skilled artisans, and blessed with a salubrious climate. He reports in measured four-word phrases:
Land, soil-fertile loam.
Sowing, reaping-fully planted.
Forest trees-dense, dark,
Flowers, fruit-prolific, thriving
While the Chinese were taking their chances among strangers in strange lands, their foreign counterparts were bringing the flavors of their own cultures to China and getting a mixed reception. Royal personages and other dignitaries were likely to receive the best treatment, especially if they presented themselves as supplicants and friends. A particularly noble foreign refugee was Perez. son of the last king of Persia, who escaped to China when the Arabs overran his country in the Seventh Century; he was made an officer in the palace guard in Chang-an.
Young Perez was seeking safety; others sought profit; still others learning. Japanese monks came regularly to Ch’ang-an to find learned instructors in the newest and most reliable interpretations of Buddhist scriptures, and the kings and noblemen of Tibet sent their sons to study the writings of Confucius and his followers.
The Chinese also gained from the influx of foreigners, many of them talented men who came to stay and who served their adopted land with distinction. In T’ang times, a proper education in the Chinese style could lead to success in the civil service examinations, and to a respectable post in the administration. A Muslim who came to the capital in the middle of the Ninth Century excelled in the examinations and earned an important official post. A Sogdian merchant from Central Asia became Protector of Annam and that post was later held by a Japanese.
There were many establishments for the accommodation of foreigners, most of them founded by the alien communities themselves hostels, way-side restaurants and temples to make Korean envoys, Japanese monks, or Persian merchants more comfortable in this unfamiliar land. The alien communities took pains to show good will, often at considerable cost, toward their powerful hosts. The foreign community of Yang-chou at the mouth of the Yangtze River, for instance, which was composed of many nationalities, subscribed very substantial amounts of money toward the building of a government-sponsored Buddhist monastery in the Ninth Century.
In early T’ang times Persians were the most numerous and the most glamorous of the foreigners seen on the streets of Chinese cities. Their glamor derived from a popular belief that Persians were rich and that some were probably disguised noblemen. Perhaps some of the early Persian traders falsely passed themselves off as princely ambassadors to gain access to courtly circles. The richest trade in China was carried out under the name of “tribute,” and who could tell what credentials foreign kings might provide? After the Arab conquest, many Persian aristocrats did, like the princely Perez, flee as far as China to seek refuge in the Chinese court or to look for anonymous safety in the bustling T’ang markets.
After the middle of the T’ang period, when foreigners were rarer in the Middle Kingdom, the Persian became a common figure in popular tales. He was portrayed as being as rich as Croesus, a benefactor of young students, a wonder-worker, a connoisseur of gems and precious metals. He might be represented as avaricious and superstitious, but he was always elevated above common men because of his supposed princely birth and supernatural powers.
The average foreigner in China, however, was subject to severe disabilities, especially if he adhered to his native manners and customs. The dark-skinned, wavy-haired men of Cambodia and Malaya were called “ghosts,” “goblins” and “demons” in some T’ang books. The orthodox Confucianists, though they were well enough educated to know that “foreign” and “nonhuman” were not synonymous, found all things foreign somewhat repellent except, of course, for the rich tokens of submission to the Son of Heaven, which showed recognition of Chinese superiority. A rather chauvinistic poet of the Ninth Century deplored such regrettable manifestations as smelly woolen garments and odd-sounding music:
Ever since the foreign horsemen began raising smut and dust,
Fur and fleece, rank and rancid, have filled Ch’ang-an and Loyang.
Women make themselves foreign matrons, by the study of foreign make-up;
Entertainers present foreign tunes, in their devotion to foreign music.
But although the traditional moralists despised foreign ways and regretted their acceptance by honorable Hua men, they were not always able to prevail against the enticement of exotic goods and strange ideas. In fact, there was no area of Chinese life that was left untouched by alien ways.